There’s something peculiarly timely about this deliciously twisty, romantic thriller, with its themes of virtual isolation and physical separation. Freely adapted from a novel by Camille Laurens, Who You Think I Am boasts a kaleidoscopic performance by Juliette Binoche as a fiftysomething woman who has been rendered invisible by society (at one point a character literally looks at her without seeing her) but finds a new face for herself online. Pitched somewhere between the icy satire of late-period Claude Chabrol and the guilty thrills of Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One, Safy Nebbou’s mysterious tale of love and obsession will strike a chord with anyone who has worried about the random interactions of the internet while remaining inexorably drawn to the seductive glow of their iPhone.
Binoche is Claire, a disillusioned divorcee who recounts her story to therapist Dr Catherine Bormans (Nicole Garcia) while we watch in flashback. Having been “unfriended” by younger lover Ludo, Claire creates a fake online persona – an alluring 24-year-old named Clara with whom Ludo’s assistant Alex (a ruffle-haired François Civil) promptly becomes infatuated. What starts as an attempt to spy on her ex soon blossoms into something more: a virtual relationship with Alex conducted with all the crackling energy of a long-distance affair. It’s intense, erotic and overwhelming. But is Alex really the subject of Claire’s affections? Or is it the thrill of becoming Clara that truly fires her passion?
Slyly characterising social media as “both the shipwreck and the life raft”, the film adroitly charts Claire’s descent into a second life, increasingly removed from the rules and responsibilities of the physical world, addicted to “that little green light” on her screen, like Gatsby mesmerised by the light at the end of Daisy’s dock. One moment she’s chiding her kids for using their phones at the table, the next she’s furtively hiding her own calls, walking through supermarkets and libraries in a bubble, oblivious to the outside world. “When I was with him I felt alive,” she tells Dr Bormans, apparently forgetting that she was never “with” Alex at all. They even have sex, albeit at a distance, leaving her feeling “more like Clara than Claire”. “What are you looking for?” Bormans asks. “To live another life?” “Not another one,” snaps Claire, “mine! At last!”
It’s significant that Claire is a professor of literature, well versed in the complexities of the authorial voice. We see her in lectures, discussing Les Liaisons Dangereuses; citing Marguerite Duras as a “truly independent” spirit’; unpacking the role of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. At one point she compares her online life to a novel, and throughout the drama we watch Claire effectively writing her own story – her past, present and future. But in this brave new world, the spectre of Unfriended is never far from view, adding a tinge of horror to the unfolding psychodrama.
Nebbou cites Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Hitchcock’s Vertigo as key cinematic inspirations, although I was put more in mind of Karel Reisz’s adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with its knowingly playful deconstruction of narrative. Certainly Claire is an unreliable narrator, daring Dr Bormans to become involved in (and aroused by) her recollections, exhibiting a stalker’s desperation for some form of validating response from a stranger. But there’s also a strange sense of empowerment in Claire’s ability to un-write and then re–write her life at will, as if the internet had provided her with the ultimate blank page – a canvas upon which dreams may be made real.
While the film’s mirrored visuals are as crisp and glossy as an uninterrupted high-speed broadband connection (something after which many of us lust in vain), the script by Nebbou and Julie Peyr is full of cracked humour, such as the moment when Claire is caught out using an old-fashioned colloquialism online, and has to Google “insta” before continuing her conversation. Binoche, who spends much of the movie alone in the frame, gets the tragicomic tone of these scenes just right, perfectly embodying the Claire/Clara dichotomy as two worlds collide – youth and age, physicality and fantasy, sadness and psychopathy. Her performance really is a thing of wonder, reminding me somewhat of Kristin Scott Thomas’s subtly unhinged turn in Catherine Corsini’s Leaving.
Ibrahim Maalouf’s score plays dextrously upon the film’s competing themes, with strings highlighting the yearning melodrama, while an apparently innocent piano riff subtly echoes the tripping, two-note chime of Claire’s Facebook alarm. It all adds up to a very modern drama about age-old anxieties: the fear of ageing and death; the desire for intimacy and reassurance; the allure of artifice and deceit.
Source: The Guardian